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More Than 100 Students Arrested at Columbia University as Protests Spread

On Thursday, April 18, 2024, New York Police Department (NYPD) officers arrested 108 protestors from Columbia University’s New York City campus after they were authorized to enter the campus by the school’s president, Minouche Shafik. The protestors that were targeted by the university and the police were gathered on the South Lawn of the university where they set up tents, calling the protest zone the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment”. In addition to the arrests, all students involved in the encampment who refused to leave by the Wednesday 9.00 pm deadline have been suspended.


Columbia University students have been very active in organizing protests on campus since October 7 when Hamas launched an attack into Israel killing more than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals and taking more than 240 hostages. As the Israeli military operation on Gaza continues, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and 85% of the population has been displaced, which has led to increased student mobilization on campuses in the United States. Until now, the reactions of universities to this increased level of student mobilization have failed to keep tensions between administrations and student groups from rising. In November 2023, the Columbia University administration changed the guidelines for protests on campus without consulting any university-wide body that had student or faculty representatives.[1] The school then suspended two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) from the campus for being violation of the new guidelines which introduced a 10-day notice requirement prior to “events” with 25 people or more.[2] Protest guidelines have been changed again under the “Interim University Policy for Safe Demonstrations”, which included input from the University Senate. While the new rules shorten the required advance notice from 10 days to 2 days, they have been criticized for limiting protest activity on campus to “demonstration zones”. Critics, which include students and free speech experts, have drawn attention to the limits these new guidelines place on academic freedom.[3]


Presumably, it was the fact that the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” was in violation of these new protest rules which led President Shafik to suspend the students and authorize the NYPD to arrest them for trespassing[4] last Thursday, although the official statement did not list which rules the protesting students had violated.[5] The encampment consisted of a multitude of tents erected on the South Lawn of the Morningside Heights Campus. Hundreds of Columbia University students participated in the encampment and declared that they would not leave the area until its demands for divestment from companies with ties to the Israeli state and the military were met by the administration. In her official statement, President Shafik stated that the “encampment violates all of the new policies, severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students.” Some experts and students have disputed this claim and argued that the encampment does not obstruct access to any buildings and has been peaceful from the start, a claim even echoed by NYPD Chief John Chell, who also stated that “it was Shafik, not the NYPD, who identified the demonstration as a ‘clear and present danger.’ ”[6]


All of the student protestors who were detained were later released while two affiliates who were detained earlier were arrested and charged. The released students have been issued summonses.[7] Students who were told they were suspended for taking part in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment have started to receive official notice of their suspension by late Friday. Listed reasons for students’ suspension included “disruptive behavior, violation of law, violation of University policy, failure to comply, vandalism or damage to property, and unauthorized access or egress”.[8] As the protests and the police present around the school continued over the weekend, President Shafik decided to cancel all in-person classes and moved them online for Monday, April 22 before announcing the same day that classes will be delivered in hybrid format until the end of the semester.[9]


President Minouche Shafik’s decision to call the police and to allow the students to be arrested by came a day after she testified in a congressional hearing held by the U.S. House’s Committee on Education and the Workforce. The hearing was part of a series of hearings designed to investigate allegations of antisemitism on university campuses around the country. Previously, presidents of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) had testified before the same committee in December of 2023. Presidents of Harvard and UPenn resigned following reactions to their statements during the hearings. Similarly, Shafik’s statements also seem not to have convinced either the committee members or advocates of academic freedom. After the hearing, some committee members accused Shafik of lying during parts of her testimony, while the President of the American Association of University Professors stated that Shafik, “threw faculty and academic freedom under the bus”.[10]


Shafik’s actions have also been criticized from within the university. In an e-mail addressed to Shafik, the faculty and student members of the executive committee of the University Senate stated that they did not approve of the decision to allow the NYPD on campus. The chairs of the committee later condemned the president’s decision.[11] The local branch of the Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine, representing members from Columbia, Barnard College and Teachers College also condemned the decision and called for an “academic boycott of all events, including the commencement set to take place on May 15.[12] Other faculty members, in their statements to Inside Higher Ed also voiced their criticisms.[13]


Similar encampments have been erected at other campuses like The University of North Carolina, Ohio State University, Boston University and Yale University in solidarity with Columbia students.[14] In New York City, students from New York University (NYU) and The New School have launched their own encampments, echoing the calls for divestment, and demanding guarantees of academic freedom and protection for protesting students.[15] While the situation in these campuses are still playing out and it is unclear what the universities’ response to them will be, the New York Timesreported that at least 60 protestors, 47 of which are students have been arrested at Yale University on Monday, April 22. Additionally, on the same day, more than 150 students and faculty members who were protesting on Gould Plaza on the Manhattan campus of NYU were arrested by the NYPD[16] at the request of the university administration.[17]


Endangered Scholars Worldwide (ESW) is deeply concerned with these violations of academic freedom perpetrated by university administrations as this wave of protests spreads to more and more campuses around the US. We call upon all universities to refrain from punishing students for engaging in acts of democratic self-expression on campuses with suspensions or arrests. University campuses should remain spaces in which academic freedom can be fully enjoyed by all members. We further call upon the members of the international community dedicated to upholding human rights globally to echo our calls to universities in the US to respect the academic freedom of students and faculty.

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